Linda Hutcheon: Reading Notes, Chapters 3 and 4

By Josh Coblentz and Justin Laffer

Chapter 3 Summary

Chapter 3, “Limiting the Postmodern: The Paradoxical Aftermath of Modernism” discusses the inherent link between postmodernism and modernism.  Both terms lack a complete solid definition, more so with postmodernism, but in general it is accepted that both exist or have existed, both because and despite each other simultaneously.  Hutcheon makes a number of points that go against the critics of postmodernism in this chapter.  For example she takes on Terry Eagleton and Frederic Jameson’s criticism on the nostalgia seen as a postmodern characteristic.  She insists that it is not so much nostalgia, but looking at the past ironically in order to see it from a different point of view.  Where nostalgia wishes to go back, irony wishes to rethink.  Also, in postmodernism, the idea has been reached that everyone knows fiction cannot accurately represent reality, and does not attempt to anymore.  Still it tries to be a didactic art, yet not in the same way modernism was.  Where modernism would create a distance between the reader as subordinate and the work as expert, postmodern works tend to integrate into the popular culture, be playful, give attention to the various fringe voices around the center of power–overall, a closer, yet not always easier learning experience.  It brings together theory and praxis into the same work, where formerly the two had always been separate.  Postmodernism never offers objective answers, only a plethora of questions.  All answers must be a subjective creation in reaction to a work or event.  These answers are not strictly just for present events; the word postmodernism, with modernism embedded in it, suggests that we also look back to the modern era, perhaps beyond, to reevaluate those periods with the critical eye we presently have.

Reading Notes

I

p. 37, par 1. — Postmodernism is linked with modernism as an outgrowth and reaction to it.  The term is not used in the sense that it is futuristic in any way, but is a present order with distinguishing features that set it apart from the early to mid 20th century and demands a separate label.

p. 37-38, par 2 — There has been a tendency to ignore attempts at defining postmodernism, perhaps because the contradictions do not allow it.  Hutcheon wants to attempt to do so in this chapter.

p. 38, par 1 — Hutcheon wants to create a more stable meaning of the term ‘postmodern’, somewhat similar to the stability of “postmodern architecture,” its use of bringing past architecture into relevance with the present, and show its relationship to modernism.

p. 38, par 2 — The focus of this chapter will be on postmodern novels, but it is advised to look at other mediums elsewhere so that a fuller understanding of what postmodernism means can be achieved.  The idea is also introduced, in the quote from Rosalind Kraus, that theory and art are no longer separate; they are part of the same work.

II

p. 39, par 1 — Postmodernism has an interesting conversation with the past, as shown through postmodern architecture.  The fact that there is a distance between works from the past and present is evidenced by the irony of the present work in recreating previous works, or incorporating aspects of those works into the present.

p. 39, par 2 — Irony, although considered not serious, is essential to the postmodern relation to the past.  It is a tool used to provoke reconsidering what we have done in the past, so as to question our situation.

p. 39, par 3 — Postmodernism, for Hutcheon, does not exhibit the characteristic of nostalgia as Eagleton and Jameson have claimed.  Irony makes us see the past and present in a different light by juxtaposing the two, which is completely different from seeking a singular ideal of the past.

p. 39-40, par 4 — Our culture has reacted one way to the events of modernism.  What postmodernism does is allow for an imagining, or even an attempt for different reactions to those events in order to think of, and perhaps lead to achieving a different present.

p. 40, par 1-2 — Hutcheon sees the postmodern novel constantly exhibiting a characteristic of “historiographic metafiction,” an extension of modernist tendencies taken to an extreme where the narrative is self-reflexive, aware that it is a work of fiction, and plays around with this idea.

p. 40-41, par 3 — Postmodern fiction is seen as the area to experiment with these possible alternate realities, bringing in aspects of history, sociology, theory, beauty, etc. into the conversation.

p. 41, par 1 — The characteristic of self-reflexivity does not mean that the work is only focusing directly on itself.  Postmodernism also allows for a broadening of what can be allowed in fiction, bringing in the aspects mentioned above for a larger discussion.

p. 41, par 2 — Postmodernism’s relationship to mass culture is useful in that it highlights the fringe voices that may have been otherwise left out in modernism.  These voices are essential into viewing events in differing points of view.

p. 41-42, par 3 — The fringe voices, or “ex-centric” voices do not destroy the center they are questioning.  They are merely questioning them in order to rethink our values, acknowledging the fact that we have a desire to construct things, but realize that our creations are just that – human constructs.

III

p. 42, par 1 — “Historiographic metafiction” shows the contradictions of both historicism and literature to provoke further questioning

p. 42-43, par 1-2 — Postmodernism and modernism both have individual contradictions within them.  But where modernism didn’t acknowledge its contradictions, postmodernism shows them as its highlighted characteristic.  The contradictions show that all of our constructs can only mean something to us.  Our systems do not apply to the outside world and any meaning we derive from them can only mean something to us, the creators of the various systems.

p. 44-45, par 2-3 — One of the contradictions that are brought together under postmodernism is the bringing together of high and low art.  Hutcheon uses examples like Woody Allen’s film techniques, the fact that postmodern works are studied academically and also bestsellers.  The contradiction bridges the gap between high and low art, suggesting that the previous distinctions between the two only mean something to humans, and those distinctions are becoming less relevant.  The contradiction provokes us to reexamine our old contradictions within the very work itself sometimes.

p. 45, par 1 — Hutcheon uses the example at the beginning of postmodern architecture’s quirk of bringing the past into conversation with the present to highlight the way some postmodern novels, specifically The French Lieutenant’s Woman, brings in aspects, in an ironic way, from Victorian literature.

p. 45, par 2 — The postmodern novel ironically places aspects of the past within the present context, always for critical use.  It makes the reader not only think about past conditions, but how things are either different or similar presently.  This is also an exercise in self-reflexivity in that it begs questions about the social impulses that provoked the work to bring these aspects to the present discussion.

p. 46, par 1 — Jameson’s claim is that we have lost a sense of history within postmodernism.  Hutcheon agrees with him here in a way.  It is not that we have lost the memory of certain historical events, just that we lost the old means of interpreting those events.  Our meaning or creation of meaning of the events is questioned.

p. 46, par 2 — Postmodernism questions every narrative, even Marxist ones, “ex-centric” ones.  It works as a critique within a system, specifically the consumer capitalist one we are presently in, and it makes no claims to hide its critiques or its relationship to the culture.

p. 46-47, par 3 — Unlike avant-garde art of the past, postmodernism does not make idealistic claims, rather it promotes questioning of the past instead of an outright dismissal of it.  In this way it allows a subjective and arguably better connection with one’s ideals.

p. 47, par 1 — A postmodern novel will leave paradoxes unresolved so that you as a reader will have to realize the paradox and question what it is that created it.

p. 47-48, par 3 — All certainty is constantly questioned, leaving no room for it.  There is no absolute truth in postmodernism, only varying subjective points of view.

p. 48, par 1 — Postmodernism is not simply a deconstruction oriented system.  The aim is not to destroy any meaning from myths or formerly held truths, but to reexamine those myths and truths to see if any meaning whatsoever can be derived from the creations of those them.

IV

p. 48-49, par 2 — Postmodernism does not negate modernism.  Neither one is working to cancel the other out.  Postmodernism is an extension of modernism that questions the workings of it.

p. 49, par 1 — Hutcheon’s reference to Ihab Hassan’s columns between postmodernism and modernism leave the fact out that Hassan stated in that article that the two columns of characteristics are not final: “Yet the dichotomies this table represents remain insecure, equivocal” (Hassan 6).  Hutcheon’s point, however, is that characteristics do not belong under one term or the other.  Postmodernism and Modernism share many of the same characteristics simultaneously.

p. 49, par 2 — Hutcheon urges anyone describing postmodernism to be as descriptive as possible, citing examples where possible to clarify points made.

p. 49-50, par 3 — Two schools of though in postmodernism:

1.) There is a complete radical division between postmodernism and modernism

2.) Postmodernism is an extension of modernism where certain tendencies have grown.

p. 50, par 1– The first school of thought uses exhibits like the seriousness of modernism against the playfulness of postmodernism, the heroics of modernism and the anti-heroics of postmodernism to reinforce their beliefs.

p. 50, par 2 — Hutcheon hopes to move away from classifying modernism with epistemology and postmodernism with ontology, or vice versa.  Rather she sees both existing at the same time.  Postmodernism, with modernism existing simultaneously is interested in justified beliefs and the nature of being.

p. 50, par 3 — The suggestion made against Jameson is that postmodernism cannot escape from being a symptom of late capitalism, and therefore cannot completely deny it.  Rather it has to use the tools of capitalism to question itself and bring the contradictions to the forefront.

p. 50-51, par 4 — The distinct characteristics that define modernism and postmodernism are usually subjective ones.  Postmodernism as an extension of modernism still questions the bourgeois ethics, but from within the system itself and it knows that.

p. 51, par 1-2 — The second school of thought uses postmodernism and modernism’s questioning of history and postmodernism’s tendencies to create an even greater distancing away from the audience at times as well as its complete detachment from realism as their justification of postmodernism being an extension of modernism.

p. 51-52, par 3 — Hutcheon suggests that both school are correct simultaneously, leaving the paradox between the two interpretations out in the open.  She also suggests that postmodernism does not lack reference, just that the references become obfuscated.

p. 52-53, par 3 — Postmodern art presents itself as a human construct and reveals itself as so by exposing not only its contradictions but contradictions in the systems of the past (modernism, realism).

V

p. 53-54, par 1-2 — Theory and practice work together in postmodern art.  One does not dictate the other, they both work in synthesis.

p. 54, par 2 — Postmodernism has an awareness of the social conditions that have formed it.  It uses “ex-centric” voices to question the structure of power.

p. 55, par 1 — Poststructuralism, like postmodernism seeks to question and show the contradictions in the very principles that founded the movements (structuralism and modernism respectively).

Works Cited

Hassan, Ihab. The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture.  Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press.  1987.

Chapter 4 Summary

Chapter 4, “Decentering the Postmodern: The Ex-centric”, Hutcheon seeks to articulate the role which plurality and ex-centric perspectives have within postmodernist art.  She asserts that one of the fundamental aspects of postmodernism is a critical approach to all liberal humanist assertions of human existence.  Hutcheon warns against a nihilistic understanding of Postmodernity, stating that “criticism does not necessarily imply destruction, and postmodern critique, in particular, is a paradoxical and questioning beast…It is neither uncertain nor suspending of judgment: it questions the very bases of any certainty (history, subjectivity, reference) and of any standards of judgment” (Hutcheon, 57).  With this understanding of postmodernism’s critical approach towards univocal narratives and authority, she then traces the role which ex-centric perspectives and pluralities of thought have had and continue to have on Postmodernity.  This chapter seeks to show not just the many aspects of ex-centric postmodern influence, but also the contentious and contradictory relationship decentering has with the center.

Reading Notes

I

Pg. 57 “No doubt this interrogative stance, this contesting of authority is partly, at least, a result of the decentered revolt, the ‘molecular politics of the 1960’s.”  In this section Hutcheon links the plurality of perspectives present within postmodern art with the development of identity politics during the 1960’s.  She traces the characteristic of postmodern ex-centric identity assertion to the rise of various counter-cultural movements; namely black and feminist forms of art and literature.

Pg 58 “The local, the regional, the non-totalizing are reasserted as the center becomes fiction –necessary, desired, but a fiction nonetheless.”  Hutcheon describes here the framework for ex-centric identity assertion.  As absolutes and univocal narratives have been destabilized in the process of postmodernism, the fringe elements of modern society are able to position themselves within the multi-vocal discourse of society.

Pg. 59 “When the center starts to give way to the margins, when totalizing universalization begins to self deconstruct, the complexity of the contradiction within convention – such as those of genre, for instance – begin to be apparent.”  Hutcheon makes a key connection here between the cultural diversification/decentering of authority within postmodern art and it’s formal characteristics.  She thus asserts that the breaking down of boundaries within a theoretical understanding of literature coincides with a technical or formal shift in artistic production.

Pg 59 “The contradiction is typical of postmodern theory.  The decentering of our categories of thought always relies on the centers it contests for its very definition (and often its verbal form)…But the power of these new expressions is always paradoxically derived from that which they challenge.”  “The contradictory nature of postmodernism involves its offering of multiple, provisional alternative to traditional, fixed unitary concepts in full knowledge of (and even exploiting) the continuing appeal of those very concepts.”   Hutcheon touches upon the primary antagonism postmodern ex-centric expression has with traditional univocal narratives; that being that while ex-centric writers seek to destabilize traditional hierarchies of art, the power of their expression is dependent upon their position apart from traditional center.  In this way, postmodern art gains power from the very thing, which it seeks to destabilize.

Pg. 60  “The center may not hold, but it is still an attractive fiction of order and unity that postmodern art and theory continue to exploit and subvert.”  This expresses the core of the contradictory nature of postmodernism; for all its destabilization and toppling of hierarchies, it still requires fictive structures to support itself.

II

Pg 61 “To collapse hierarchies is not to collapse distinctions, however.  Postmodernism retains, and indeed celebrates differences against what has been called the ‘racist logic of the exclusive.’”

Pg 61 “It is again to the 1960s that we must turn to see the roots of this change, for it is those years that saw the inscribing into history of previously ‘silent’ groups defined by differences of race, gender, sexual preferences, ethnicity, native status, class.”  Hutcheon articulates here what will be the theoretical movement of the rest of the chapter, detailing the ‘molecular politics’ of the era, whose achievements in literature and art facilitated the diversified forms of expression present in postmodernism.

Pg. 65 “Most theoretical discussions of difference owe much to the work on the differential system of language and its signifying processes by Saussure, Derrida, Lacan and others.  Meaning can be created only by differences and sustained only by reference to other meaning.”  Here Hutcheon echoes her core assertion of the ex-centric in Postmodernity; the individual (whether ex-centric or centric) only understands himself in relationship to how he is different from others.  Interestingly, what Hutcheon expresses here is the basis for Terry Eagleton’s critique of postmodernism.  He asserts that a dedicated focus on difference and dissimilarity disallows human beings to comprehend universal material needs issues, which in turn, denies a liberal humanist acceptance of grand social change.

III

Pg. 66 “The language of margins and borders marks a position of paradox: both inside and outside.  Given this position, it is not surprising that the form that heterogeneity and difference often take in postmodern art is that of parody – the intertextual mode that is paradoxically an authorized transgression, for its ironic difference is set at the very heart of similarity.”  Having established a genealogy of postmodern ex-centric expression in the last section, Hutcheon concludes the chapter by demonstrating that ex-centric art and literature often relies upon parodic forms of Intertextuality as means of questioning its relationship with the center itself.

Pg. 69 “The noel self-consciously evades the danger that postmodern discourse also must constantly attempt to skirt: that it will essentialize its ex-centricity or render itself complicit in the liberal humanist notions of universality (speaking for all ex-centrics) and eternality (forever).  Postmodernism does not move the marginal to the center.”  Hutcheon carefully evades one of the problems inherent within questioning the role of destabilizing the center; that in doing so, one might replace the center with a new center.  Instead, she describes postmodernism as a form of endless questioning of assumptions and a refusal to accept any absolutes.  For Hutcheon, Postmodernity does not attempt too make the ex-centric the new center, but instead questions the notion of centrality.

IV

Pg. 73 “The theory and practice of postmodern art has shown way of making the different, the off-center, into the vehicle for aesthetic and even political consciousness-raising – perhaps the first and necessary step to any radical change.”  Interestingly, Hutcheon evokes a sense of praxis or revolutionary spirit inherent within postmodernism’s questioning of authority and assumed hierarchies.  She sees postmodern critical appreciation as a necessary step in facilitating a greater social and material change within the world.